16 Conclusions on overdue away joy for Liverpool as Spurs’ comeback kings leave themselves too much to do

Eric Dier looks dejected after Mo Salah scores for Liverpool against Tottenham in the Premier League Credit: Alamy
Eric Dier looks dejected after Mo Salah scores for Liverpool against Tottenham in the Premier League Credit: Alamy

Spurs should either stop being rubbish and going behind all the time or make sure they fall behind straight away to give themselves maximum time to complete the stirring comeback. Liverpool, meanwhile, will be extremely grateful for the first-half gifts that helped them to a first away league win of the season…

 

1. First and most obviously, a huge and vital win for Liverpool. A first away from home in the league all season, ridiculous as that sounds, and one that ensures they at least remain in the top four picture going into the World Cup break. Defeat – or even a draw, really – here after their most recent Premier League results and performances would have left a vast gap and serious questions about whether Liverpool had either the wit or the nerve to reduce it.

 

2. But this was still a peculiar old game for Liverpool, a team playing well below their best level and clearly still short of confidence and belief. Even when Liverpool were easing into a 2-0 first-half lead, this game felt like it was all about what Spurs were doing, for better or worse. Liverpool’s was a reactive performance, a game spent responding to whatever nonsense Spurs happened to be producing at any given moment. Gleefully so in the first half, when Spurs were their usual on-brand self-destructive foot-shooting diabolically shit first-half selves, and grimly so when Spurs flicked the switch in the second half. The importance of this win for Liverpool is clear, but there should be no kidding themselves on that this was a performance that marks a certain return to better times.

 

3. Spurs’ players will be kicking themselves. Or at least trying to – there’s a reasonable chance they’ll miss. We all enjoy the contrast they’ve taken to displaying between their first and second-half performances, but this was taken beyond absurd levels here and leaves them ruing a monumentally large missed opportunity. Multiple missed opportunities really, both literal and metaphorical. A chance for only a second win in the last 20 meetings with Liverpool, for one. And there will be no easier opportunity for the ‘statement win’ against elite opposition that Antonio Conte’s side thus far lack this season. Liverpool were absolutely there for the taking, but this time the comeback kings left themselves too much to do.

 

4. Tactical idea: Spurs simply smash the ball into their own net from the kick-off to maximise the amount of playing time available to play properly and complete their stirring comeback. All time spent at 0-0 is clearly time wasted and of no value. Another 10 minutes here might have been all they needed.

 

5. As it was, both Liverpool and Spurs spent the first 10 minutes rehearsing for a goal that was so obviously and imminently coming in the precise manner in which it did that you almost had to admire the commitment to it from everyone involved. Three or four times before Liverpool did finally open the scoring, Spurs offered the exact invitation that would eventually be accepted after what seemed to be far, far longer than 10 earth minutes. Time and again Andy Robertson was afforded the freedom of the left-hand side of the pitch. Time and again Darwin Nunez was inadequately tracked. Darwin had two sights of goal before Mo Salah opened the scoring, a powerful effort first up beaten away by Hugo Lloris and another curled wide. Liverpool’s subtle switch to having the chance fall to a ludicrously unmarked Salah rather than a ludicrously unmarked Darwin proved shrewd. Darwin was the creator this time, teeing the ball up for Salah. The touch, turn and shoot manoeuvre was expertly completed by last season’s Golden Boot winner, but Spurs fans may feel entitled to ask why none of the approximately seven million defensive players on the pitch for the home side saw fit to take any action whatsoever to prevent this.

 

6. And then the second goal. Ah. Well. It’s all ifs and buts, but we remain of the firm if unprovable and likely wrongheaded conviction that Spurs playing as they did in the second half would very likely have turned that game around from 1-0 rather than 2-0 down. That we don’t know whether this will be the case is due to one of the most starkly embarrassing individual errors of the season from Eric Dier, and one absolutely horrendously timed in far more ways than one after the months and months spent slowly, surely, painstakingly playing his way back into Gareth Southgate’s England squad. The thing about this error that makes it such an omnishambles – even beyond the moment, the fixture, and the specific opponent he presented with the ball – is that it was a double error. Most horrible defensive errors are one of two things: a terrible decision, or terrible execution. Dier here managed to do both, making a complete bollocks of his attempt to head the ball back to Lloris but from a position where, with Salah lurking so menacingly, even successfully managing to head the ball with his head rather than shoulder would most likely still have presented the ball to the Egyptian. It ensured Spurs would, for the fourth league game in a row, go 2-0 down. In summary, then: bad.

 

7. There is a slightly inconvenient truth for those of us who would much rather stick with the more straightforward first half bad, second half good Spurs narrative. And that is that between the two disastrous Liverpool goals, Spurs actually played quite well. Ivan Perisic hit the post via an unknowing deflection off Alisson. Trent Alexander-Arnold’s careless, guileless shove on Ryan Sessegnon could on another day very easily have been a penalty. It looked both a classic case of “a foul anywhere else on the pitch” – something TAA helpfully highlighted himself 10 minutes later by committing the exact same foul on the exact same player outside the penalty area and a free-kick being awarded – and also an “umpire’s call” VAR decision where had it been given on the field it wouldn’t have been overturned off it. The main point, though, is that this wasn’t quite Marseille or Bournemouth or Newcastle. It was broadly similar in that it took Spurs falling behind to make them do anything, but the effects did kick in slightly quicker this time until Dier got involved and Spurs, slightly understandably, spent the rest of the first half in an existential funk that could very easily have cost them a third game-killing goal before the break.

 

8. While Spurs in general were living both up and down to their recent reputation, the same was true of Alexander-Arnold. His forward play was often glorious, his crossfield passes to Darwin showing often extraordinary vision married to pinpoint accuracy and flawless execution. But defensively he more than once in the first half found himself wildly out of position and scrambling to deal with Sessegnon. He could easily have conceded a thoroughly needless penalty, and on another day we might all be spending a lot of time wondering why he decided to run forward 20 yards as Spurs launched a final attack in stoppage time, allowing Perisic time and space to send a cross into the box. He still remains an excellent footballer who nominally occupies the right-back position rather than a great right-back and we still don’t really know how or if Southgate should try and utilise that for England.

 

9. Two things that are probably true: One, Antonio Conte’s team selection for his starting XI was drearily bad and yet two, there probably wasn’t anything much he could have done differently. Spurs’ often extreme and infuriating negativity means the benefit of the doubt is inevitably in short supply, but with Richarlison and Son Heung-min unavailable and neither Dejan Kulusevski nor Lucas Moura fit to start, it’s hard to know what else Conte could have done to change things. And even in those dire opening minutes there was a clear desire to prevent the stated 3-5-2 becoming the 5-4-1 it so obviously threatened to be. Perisic was right up alongside Harry Kane, and both wing-backs tried to push Robertson and Alexander-Arnold back. That this ultimately left the space Liverpool exploited for the opening goal won’t be lost on anyone. Weird as it is, a Spurs team containing 10 defensively-minded players might actually have been better off accepting their fate in the early stages and playing more defensively. Or maybe they really do just need to go 1-0 down all the time, who knows.

 Credit: Alamy
Credit: Alamy

10. Salah’s expertly taken if generously donated brace makes it nine goals in eight games for a man previously bang out of form. In the interests of fairness – and if there’s one thing Our League prides above all else it’s absolute level-playing-field fairness across the board – we’re calling for a rule whereby all struggling Premier League attackers get to play a game against Rangers to sort themselves out.

 

11. While it was Salah who got the goals, there is an argument that Darwin was in fact Liverpool’s key attacking figure in the first half. He is a fantastically fun footballer to watch, and within 20 minutes we’d already lost count of the number of times Gary Neville had used the word “raw” on commentary. He will inevitably suffer in comparison to Sadio Mane at times because he demonstrably isn’t as polished or as consistent or as reliable performer. But he does bring a certain chaos that Liverpool could well exploit in the second half of the season. Lesser players than Darwin have given Emerson Royal conniptions this season, but it was still striking how one-sided that particular battle was and it was Darwin’s ability to occupy and often overwhelm two of Tottenham’s back five that left Salah the space and exploitable opportunities in more central areas. Even when ‘selfishly’ shooting from unhelpful looking positions or angles, there is still a selflessness to it from Darwin because it all helps to lay the trap. He’s not the finished product, he will make mistakes, and he will take wrong decisions and questionable options. But he will absolutely always at the very, very least keep defenders occupied and distracted. When you have the other attacking options Liverpool possess, that in itself is a significant asset.

 

12. And talk of significant assets brings us to Dejan Kulusevski. It’s no secret how important a player he has so quickly become for Spurs. He doesn’t play in the same position as Christian Eriksen, but he does a job that nobody else has been able to replicate since the Dane’s departure of successfully linking the two parts of Tottenham’s team. Which is Harry Kane plus, usually, Heung-min Son and Everyone Else. It needs a player of intelligence and vision with exemplary technique to do it, and Kulusevski has proven utterly irreplaceable during his enforced absence. Spurs are instantly a completely different team when he is in it. This is known. Still, though, you might have expected it to take slightly longer to be hammered home as clearly as it was by his introduction to rapturous applause here, followed a few seconds later by a penalty shout and a minute after that by precisely the sort of build-up play and eventual assist for Kane that nobody else at Spurs could have produced. On a grim and frustrating afternoon, Kulusevski’s cameo was a reminder of the transformative impact he had on the side along with Rodrigo Bentancur last season and a tantalising glimpse of what may be possible once more in the second half of this campaign. He’ll surely be required for more than 30 minutes of what has become a very large game against Leeds next week – especially as Sweden’s failure to reach the World Cup means he’s then got six weeks off to complete his recovery and recuperation from hamstring twang.

13. You’re always on slightly shaky ground when questioning what a manager sees in a particular player, but it’s becoming increasingly hard to fathom why Emerson Royal enjoys such wholehearted support from a manager legendarily swift to discard those who have displeased him. It is admirable that Emerson apparently spent one million literal pounds of his own money in a bid to become better at football, but for a right wing-back in a team that leans heavily on its wing-backs for creative output it seems remiss that apparently not one single penny of that money was spent on buying The Big Book of Learning How to Cross a Football. Now that might be because such a book doesn’t exist, but the point remains. Kulusevski’s was the most obviously impactful change among Tottenham’s substitutes but it’s becoming increasingly inexplicable that Conte so visibly and thoroughly rates Emerson above Matt Doherty, who was so much more threatening.

 

14. Kane’s goal was superbly taken and makes it 11 goals from 14 for a striker who already looks a clear winner of this season’s prestigious Bar Haaland Golden Boot, but it was generally a frustrating afternoon as Ibrahima Konate stalked Kane all over the pitch and largely spoiled his fun. It shows how important a player’s mere presence or absence can be. We saw it with the way the sheer existence of Darwin created space and opportunities for Salah; we saw it in reverse with the absence of Son making Kane’s job so much harder. It also goes some way to explaining why even this season’s visibly and massively struggling version of Son has so rarely been left out. When he is on the pitch, you no longer have the luxury of allowing one of your centre-backs to devote his entire afternoon to trying to snuff out Kane wherever he may roam.

 

15. Jurgen Klopp’s post-match quotes told you everything you need to know about Liverpool’s away form before today and where precisely they sit. Relief was a word that kept coming up. And passion. And resistance. And fight. Liverpool showed all those qualities in a second half spent almost entirely on the back foot. When you’ve gone so long without a win away from home, sometimes that is the way it is going to have to be. There’s no pretending that Liverpool’s football is at the level it has been so consistently for the last five years, but they still have all those other qualities you need to be successful. Klopp’s sigh of relief at the final whistle was hard earned.

 

16. Antonio Conte’s reaction, meanwhile, only raised familiar questions about what precisely is the point of anything at Spurs right now. Everything he said about Spurs needing more belief against bigger teams and in the biggest games made perfect sense. And he’s absolutely right that changing this long-standing issue is not the work of a single year. He’s entirely correct that there are encouraging signs – especially today, from a performance a world away from those recent horror shows against Newcastle or at the Emirates and Old Trafford – and that “if we have time and patience then all will be good”. But the problem is that right now Spurs don’t have the former which means nobody has the latter, not while time ticks away on the 18-month contract of a manager who has spent roughly half his year in charge threatening to leave.

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